Page last updated at 23:32 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 00:32 UK

Half way between home and school

By Alison Smith
BBC News education reporter

Jamie McDonald
Jamie learnt at home until the age of 16

Imagine an education where you could focus on what you wanted to, learn about anything you wanted, and at the end take nationally recognised qualifications and enter university.

Some might say 18 year old Jamie McDonald has had the best of both worlds - home mostly, and a little bit of school.

Home educated until the age of 14, he then entered a unique collaboration between a group of home educators and a local secondary school in Bedford.

The project uses the resources, teachers and money from Biddenham Upper School to support home educated children through national exams - Sats, GCSEs and A-levels.

The project, which is based in Bedford and run by his mother June, broke one of the unspoken rules of home educating families by engaging with the public education system and accepting its funding.

Home education groups were horrified and the government at first said the scheme was illegal.


Many parents who home educate struggle with the practical demands of providing the tuition and financing teaching and exams.

Science is a tricky subject, as access to equipment and laboratories has to be arranged.

Others believe exams are wrong and do not want their children to sit them.

June McDonald
June McDonald has spent 20 years home-educating her children

But June McDonald says home educators who are not interested in exams "do not have a very good attitude".

"Some are really very ideological about it all."

And Jamie thinks this is the main strength of the project.

"You can't question the importance of GCSEs," he said.

"You need them to get on in the society we're in.

"If parents don't put their children them in for them, one day their teenager may turn round and accuse them of ruining their life."

Now 18, he is currently taking a gap year and deciding whether to go to Cambridge to read maths or study the bassoon at music college.


But the idea for the project actually came from within state education.

While on a visit to California, Biddenham Upper School's head teacher Mike Beryl saw an educational resource centre for home educated children in desertified areas around Sacramento.

They [home educators] thought I was the devil incarnate
Head teacher Mike Beryl

Children who could not travel to school on a daily basis would come in once a month to get resources and support.

Driven by finding new ways to educate children, Mr Beryl says he wants to help "get children out of the factory of school", so he decided to try to a similar collaboration.

But the reception from home educators was frosty at first, he says.

"They thought I was the devil incarnate.

"The hand of socialist ideology working for the government was how they treated me," he laughs, making reference to a common suspicion of authority among home educators.

Only a year later did June McDonald call him back to explore the idea, and the partnership began in 2003.

The parents could keep their autonomy, but were given the support many of them said they needed in order to get the best outcome for their children.

Biddenham Upper School financed a resource centre for the home educated children, where they could have access to two hours' focused teaching in every subject once a fortnight.

The children were on the school roll, and money from the school was used to fund their activities, tuition and exams.


After final warnings to co-ordinator June McDonald that her unit would be shut down, the government's Innovation Unit decided to fund it as part of research into personalised learning.

About six years on, it includes more than 100 children, and now any child taking part in the Place scheme (Parent-Led And Community-based Education) must sit at least five GCSEs.

The results contribute to Biddenham's league table place.

Jamie believes his very different learning experience has made him into the person he now is.

As well as core subjects, he has learned the bassoon, to cook, ice skate and make crafts.

He describes a "self-motivation" which came from a flexible learning associated with life, rather than cut off at school.

"At school I know people who come home and switch off from learning, but I'm always curious about the world around me."

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